Tuesday / August 28
Since today marked the beginning of our tenth week, we spent our time on a sort of program check-in. This began with setting some goals in terms of our timeline: we’ll finish reading the play by the end of Week 13, and we’ll spend no more than three weeks exploring it on our feet before casting. We will spend less time on these things if we start to feel like we’re spinning our wheels, but we want to be sure that a) we don’t feel rushed in group discussions and b) everyone has a chance to read the characters they’re interested in playing.
The conversation then turned to “airing” concerns that folks have had about some group dynamics. These have been brought to my attention, one-on-one, by a few “representatives”, but I felt that they really needed to be addressed by the entire ensemble since they affect everyone. I gave the group a heads up on Friday so they’d have the weekend to gather their thoughts, and there was some tension in the room as we geared up for the discussion. This is something that many of our ensemble members hadn’t done before, so we took a few minutes to talk through strategies to help things go smoothly: think about what you’re communicating physically (i.e., don’t cross your arms), and keep in mind that we all have the same objectives: to keep our ensemble strong and the program working well. Be honest, open, and compassionate. Speak and listen respectfully — don’t get defensive. Let people know if they’re coming off in a way you know they don’t intend.
Some of what we talked about requires confidentiality, but I think it’s important to write a bit about the conversation because it’s such an important part of our process — and because it went so well, even when it was tough. So here we go.
The first thing that was discussed was that a few ensemble members sometimes seem to be bossing us around or otherwise dictating what that we’re doing. These ensemble members, addressed by name, explained that they don’t mean to come off that way, apologized, and explained that everything they do is in service of the ensemble. Now that we know what their concerns are, we can “police” ourselves more. They promised to be more transparent going forward.
There was also talk about staying respectful of others at all times. One thing that people have noticed is that sometimes when one person is sharing for awhile or a discussion is lasting a long time, others exhale loudly or talk under their breath. It makes people feel like they can’t share, and we can’t have that.
There was also some concern about the number (and length) of one-on-one conversations with facilitators. This is a tough one to navigate because those conversations are so vital to our process — people need to know they can come to facilitators with individual concerns and goals in order to make sure everyone has the support they need. What we really needed was to talk openly about this — what people perceive vs. what’s actually happening — and for all of us to keep these things in mind so we can limit the length and frequency of some of those conversations. We’re going to try to leave some dedicated time at the end of each session for individual/small group work and chats with facilitators, and we’ll see if that helps.
The conversation then turned to something very important, and that’s safeguarding against creating any perception of “over-familiarity” with female facilitators. There has not been a single interaction that was inappropriate, but I think it’s right for us, as an ensemble, to be vigilant about anything that could give others the impression that there is.
It’s about boundaries, one person said: those that the facility sets, your own, and those of others. “We should be working on this as men, not just as prisoners,” he said, noting that a lack of such regard contributed to some of their incarceration. “Being a prisoner doesn’t mean you’re less than a person,” said one man, further saying that even though staff have authority over them, it doesn’t take the onus off of them to, again, “police” themselves.
Another man said he was glad we were talking about this, and that we should continue to openly communicate, but that we need to make sure we’re not blowing things out of proportion. He had a point, but others who’ve been down longer impressed upon him that misperceptions really can lead to programs being shut down, so, even if we know there’s nothing inappropriate going on, we need to always keep outside perspectives in mind.
I asked the guys to let me know if there’s ever anything I do that could contribute to others’ getting the wrong idea — that I don’t know all the ins and outs of prison, and I need help to make sure I’m just as accountable as everyone else. I told them that I really appreciated being a part of this conversation because it gave me vital perspective, and I asked if we could make this part of our orientation every time we add new people — with female facilitators in the room. All agreed; it will also keep male ensemble members accountable in terms of their own actions.
“I really appreciate how productive this was, even though it took our whole time,” one man said as we gathered to raise the ring. The feeling in the room was definitely one of relief, and I think we accomplished a lot. It was exactly the kind of conversation we wanted: respectful, clear, and compassionate. All of this will really enhance our work going forward.
Friday / August 31
We got back to the play today, beginning with Act IV, scene ii: Albany’s confrontation with Goneril and learning about what happened to Gloucester.
Our initial reaction was that Albany has had it with Goneril — that he was pretty passive before, but now he’s back with a vengeance. And as for Goneril and Edmund, “it’s like sharks with blood in the water,” said one man. “Now that they’ve got a taste, they’re not just plotting — they’re doing.” And now there is jealousy at play between Goneril and Regan over their relationships with Edmund.
And now Cordelia is back, and she’s got an army behind her. A few of the guys said that Cordelia had seemed “soft and gentle” before, but now she’s tough. Others disagreed, and I suggested that we look for clues in the language. The words themselves can often tell you that. We found that Cordelia’s language in the first scene is very “flowy”, while (jumping ahead just a bit), it’s more biting when she returns. I said that this is why you’ve gotta read these plays out loud — much of this fails to come through unless you’re speaking it.
One of the guys said he was confused because he thought that Cordelia was being defiant in the beginning, and he wasn’t sure how to square that with the language being what it is. “Cordelia’s not defiant,” said one man, “She just doesn’t have the gift of speech. She even says it.” Another disagreed slightly. “She was being defiant, period, by saying, ‘Nothing.’” Still another gave his take: “She’s not defiant. She’s just not an ass-kisser.” He continued, “Are you soft if you’re standing up to your father?”
“I wonder if that’s what [Lear] liked about her in the first place,” mused one man. “But in this particular moment, it’s like a values situation… I think he expected some sort of gratitude for it… He did say she’s his favorite, and I’m pretty sure she’s not changing who she is in this moment.” Another man agreed. “Each personality expresses themselves in their own way, and it’s not always easy for one personality to understand what the other’s saying.”
Another man said this could apply to Goneril in IV.ii. Albany’s line, “Thou changed and self-covered thing, for shame / Be-monster not thy feature,” indicates either that she’s changed or that he didn’t truly see who she was before. Most thought it was the latter, and this man began listing all the people in the play who had similar illusions about others. “Is there a single relationship in this play where both people see each other truly?” I asked. The answer came back: no.
“It’s the duality of man,” said one person, “all the way through this whole play.” Another said, “If you don’t ever look at yourself for who you are… Even in prison, you see people on autopilot here, and they’re not looking at themselves.” You get stuck, he said. And when you don’t see things truly, it’s easy to be betrayed, said another. “Lear’s heart got ripped out; Gloucester’s eyes got plucked out. Because of betrayal.”
I ventured that the opposite happens for Albany: the other side of “out with the old, in with the new” is that he’s liberated to rule in an entirely different way by the end of the play. Connecting this with the first part of our discussion (including being fascinated by the word “milquetoast”), one of the guys, said, “I don’t think Albany was a milquetoast. He was one of those guys that just goes with the flow until something showed him he had to stand up. You can be passive and not be a milquetoast.” He likened this to Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks. At a certain point, they had just had it, and it spurred them to action.
We moved on to Act IV, scene iii, in which a messenger describes Cordelia’s emotional reaction to the description of Lear’s current state. I have never been a huge fan of this scene, and I’m not alone. It’s not in the Folio, and it can really disrupt the play’s momentum. I also just have never thought it was necessary, and that I’d rather see and hear Cordelia for herself than hear her described by someone else in a way that elevates her to near-saintly status. But something I truly love about SIP is how others, coming from a completely different place, often alter my perspective on things like this. And that’s what happened.
We finished reading, and one of the guys leaned back in his chair and said, “That is sooooooo good!” I asked him why. He said it was the language itself. “The way he’s describing what she’s feeling: sunshine and rain… smiles and tears… pearls from diamonds… I got these images that were coming through.” He grinned at one of the others and said, “It’s Duality Day!” This guy is a poet himself, and he just couldn’t stop. “A diamond is beautiful because of its clarity,” he said. “A pearl is not clear and is beautiful. They’re opposites, but they’re still both beautiful.”
“There’s a parallel, too,” said another man. “Both require massive amounts of pressure to be created.” Another man broke in to clarify the process of creating a pearl, and, to avoid a long tangent, we agreed to agree that both are created by outside forces. “Think about the pressure she’s been going through,” the man continued. “Reading this letter, it’s literally leaking out through her tears… ‘All this pressure, I can’t contain it anymore.’”
The first man continued to freak out, pointing out that the language itself — “Just look at the punctuation” — creates the effect, as well as the ideas. He couldn’t believe that it would ever be cut, and I explained that it’s really a theatrical issue and has nothing to do with what he was finding. I said that there are ways of conveying what we learn from the scene without staging the scene itself, but that I now had a much deeper understanding of and appreciation for it because of his enthusiasm. There is just no end to this play’s depth.
“The thing I like about Shakespeare and Lear is — how does can something so old carry over to our age now? The reason why it carries from then to now is because human nature has never changed,” said one man. “Being human never changes. King Lear shows us that, no matter our clothes or dress, labels or titles we put on ourselves or others — including being in prison — it doesn’t alter or change the nature of being. Shakespeare writes of being human, taking note of the politics in his era… yet it all applies in still being human because we are human. So these words will continue, even from now, no matter its subterfuge or masking.”
“I think humanity has gotten worse,” said one man dolefully. He said that there’s so much violence around us, and in the news, but no one cares. “We’ve become so detached from what can be called ‘humanity’ that we’re all like Goneril and Regan.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s worse because of how women and children are treated now,” said another man. “Back then, they had no laws about domestic violence, no child labor laws. A lot of that has changed, and it’s gotten better. It’s just more people in the world, and the things he was talking about then are still relevant now.” He continued, “Shakespeare gets to the deep root of humanity — the core of what it means to be human — and we get so caught up in the other stuff that we forget how to be human.”
“I like to think of things as circular,” said another person. “Right now things are bad out there, but there have been countless times when things have been bad.” He cited slavery, brutality against Native Americans, and other atrocities. “You can see a lot of people fall in Shakespeare — you can see the state of mind and environment altering completely any landscape in which [certain things] erode morality… What I like in Shakespeare is what people can be, and what makes them dissolve… But I really think things are circular. At some point it will come back, and we will return.”
Another man built on all of this, referencing TV, the internet, and social media in particular. “We’re desensitized by our own nature… We’re able to get so much input that, in Shakespeare’s day, they wouldn’t have had… We’ve become desensitized to all those things that should appall us most about our own nature.” He said that the environment we’re in forces us to adapt, and that can be a really bad thing. “Because I know that about myself, the one thing I fear most about myself is me. Because I know what I’m capable of in a given situation.”
There was a bit of an interpersonal kerfuffle at this point, with one man reacting to another’s saying that he thought he was a “verbal bully” till he got to know him better. This first man has a lot of challenges when communicating, all of which he owns, is working on, and frequently apologizes for. He also gets frustrated when people laugh at what he says because he’s usually not trying to be funny. He was pretty upset. I said that he didn’t need to worry about any of that in our circle — that he’s been very clear and honest about all of it, and that we’ve learned that we need to listen to exactly what he’s saying and not read anything into it. I said that he speaks the unvarnished truth, and most people don’t, so we’re not used to it. I said, too, that people laughing may not mean that they think he’s funny; laughter often comes from a place of recognition or discomfort, and he often calls us (and people in general) on things that we’re not used to hearing called out with no filter, and we laugh because we know he’s right. Another man said, “Oh, yes! I’ve been trying to articulate that for years, and it’s so true. Thank you.” Another man said, too, that the man who was upset wants to define and articulate emotions, which is great, but not everyone wants to do that, and his input can come off as offensive. But we know it’s not meant to be. We just need to all be patient with each other.
Another man said there needs to be communication about that. “I am who others perceive me to be in that moment — to them,” he said. “I need them to tell me that so I can correct it if that’s not what I meant.”
One of the men grinned at me, nodding his head at those who’d been talking, and said, “A lot of the characters in the play are being revealed without any audition. I’m excited about this.”